When I was in elementary school, whenever I’d come home from school, there was something in the oven or on the counter — bread, cookies, pie, canned peaches or homemade creme puffs. The house always smelled delicious and the sight of baked goods made me incredibly happy.
My mom was a baker — a good one. So was her mom and grandmother, and on down the line. She never tried to shove her treats down our throat but it provided so much joy I couldn’t wait to learn to bake myself. I wanted to spread some of that goodness around and my baking days started in kindergarten. The first thing I made was a batch of no-bake cookies from a recipe we’d made that day in class. I remember standing over the pan stirring in the oats, chocolate, and butter. I put spoonfuls of the muddy mixture on wax paper and watched them harden. I couldn’t wait to eat them.
My mom let me have two, then I snuck another three. It felt like love and, since then, I’ve used baking as therapy and a way to de-stress and express myself. But more than that, I’ve used baking — and feeding people — as a way to show my love.
I pour the love I felt as a child into every concoction I slip in my oven and get overly excited for people to try it. I’ve always assumed people can taste the love.
When my parents divorced and we moved from our old farm house into a ranch in a crowded neighborhood in town, my mom stopped baking as much as she used to. She was a single mother to four children and I now know all too well, when that happens, something’s gotta give.
I missed her baking terribly. I’d sit in algebra class and daydream about molasses cookies, carrot cake, and the sound of my mom making donuts on Saturday with leftover pizza dough. I thought I was craving the treats my mom used to make, but really, I was craving the comfort and goodness that’s wrapped in between layers of butter and powdered sugar and chocolate chips.
The days when I’d walk in the door after school and see Christmas cookies or an apple crisp on the island cooling felt like being wrapped in a blanket. I’d take a serving (okay, three servings), and each bite felt like love and validation. It was familiar. It was warm. I wasn’t lonely or confused about life then. I was blissfully happy and didn’t occupy my mind with heavy stuff in those days. And so, I correlated those emotions with food. I thought somehow the two were intertwined together.
Then my life changed, my family’s life changed, and I’d walk into a different house after school. There were no treats lining the countertops. And for some reason, I stopped allowing myself to eat comfort baked goods and comfort food.
I know now I deprived myself in an effort to gain control over a situation I had no control over. I was craving the comfort of my old life which had slipped away, and my solution was to strip myself of that pleasure because I knew things would never be the same even if I ate all the foods my mom used to make. Sometimes, when we don’t like who we are or what we are feeling, we don’t allow ourselves certain small pleasures if we can’t have everything we used to have back. The reminder is too huge and painful.
I’ve always been a bit of a food-pusher and it was exacerbated after I had kids. And then some more after I divorced. I was determined to always have something on the counter when they came home as a way of maintaining the status quo in some small way.
I show my love through food. I reward my kids with food. I try to make everything okay with food. I want them to feel the way I did in elementary school when I’d run to the counter and throw my coat over the chair and cut a brownie and watch TV. That felt like joy and contentment.
I always want them to feel that way so I bake and present them with my gifts, even if they don’t want them.
And I need to stop.
My kids know I love them because I am present and supportive and I make sure they have what they need.
They don’t care about double chocolate chip cookies the way I do. It doesn’t feel like a hug or make them nostalgic, and I need to stop thinking if I don’t bake for them or get them fries on the way home from school it means something — I’m not taking anything away from them.
I am the one trying to create something they don’t even need.
I am the one who is trying to emulate a feeling I had during my childhood.
This is their childhood, this is their experience, and the love I have for them isn’t measured by how many mornings I make pancakes or how much frosting I pile onto a cake.
Love isn’t measured by food, and I don’t want them thinking love comes in the form of sugar and spice because I know how damaging it can be to depend on something edible for you happiness. We’ve been raised to think food never lets you down, and I’ve contributed to that.
I also know the feeling of despair and isolation that comes when you take foods away as punishment.
Love has substance and doesn’t leave an aftertaste.
Love can be found in the kitchen, sure. But the kind of love that matters stems comes from conversations, bonding, cutting up vegetables, and blowing out birthday candles together.
And that’s what I need to start showing my kids instead.